I wanted to do a slightly different review this week and focus on one book in great detail. That book is Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Book? by Lauren Child. It’s a book that, for me, is (to quote Mary Poppins) practically perfect in every way. The central character Herb falls asleep with his head on his book of fairy tales and ends up inside the book itself. Through quick-thinking and luck and the willing / unwilling help of a host of fairy tale characters, he makes it safely out of the story and wakes up.
When dealing with books like these, it’s vital to understand the role of the reader. Picture Books hold a special relationship to their audience. Usually written for children, they have the ability to be read to the child at a young age and then read by the child at a later date. During this first phase of interaction, when the child is being read to, there is the presence of an other in the reading of this text. This adult figure will also have an impact on the narrative, perhaps one greater than the child at this stage, and it is for this reason I refer to reader/s. There is more than one.
Children often select books on their covers. Books are specifically displayed ‘face-out’ in libraries in order to capitalize on this thought process. The front cover in this instance depicts Herb, reading a stylized copy of the eponymous book, his shadow thick and black behind him. A long thin hand stretches towards him and the words Who, Afraid, Big, Bad and Book are thick and black and prominent. The less important words are outlined and the author herself is named in rainbow colours. This colourful mixture is eye catching and also challenging. It is a challenge to the reader – are you afraid? Are you brave enough to read this book? Can you read it before somebody takes it off you? It also plays on a childs herd mentality, the wish to be part of the group: Herb is reading it on the front cover so why aren’t you?
Flicking through Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Book? is a genuine delight. Child plays superbly with the concept of ownership of books and with the very concept of the book itself. There is apparent graffiti on the first page, the name of Herb is scrawled on the page, cut out telephones are stuck on random pages and food and drink stains dot nearly every page. It is a book that speaks of it’s history as a book; we consider the object of this book in equal weight to the text.
A distinct feature of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book? is its usage of diverse typology and challenging text. It starts in a fairly understated manner – text on one side of a double spread and the image on the other. The text is carefully structured; we have sentences, paragraphs, capital letters and full stops. The beginning of the thought and the end of the thought is clear. But then, if we look carefully, anarchy swiftly takes root. The squashed pea itself makes little visual sense until we reach the end of the page and read about Herb’s books with squashed peas between the pages.
It’s not just the visuals in this book which exude a sense of exuberant anarchy. Typologically, this book and Child’s work as a whole have a gloriously disjointed, crazy, vibrant quality. Upon reading books like this, we face several challenges. Letters are reversed, sentences become disjointed, words travel on varying axis and yet form part of the same sentence. It’s both a challenge (can you read this? are you clever enough to cope?) and also a sense of superb naughtiness (look at this book which doesn’t follow the rules!)
Fonts shift throughout the story. ‘Fairy Tales’ is presented in a bold, massive, gothic font which is both instantly evocative and rich in interpretation. Later in the text, we hear comments from ugly daughters of Cinderella’s stepmother: ‘the pudgy sister’ and the ‘skinny one’. These are presented respectively in a bold, tightly spaced font and a long thin drawn-out font. The stepmother herself speaks in a an italic, bold manner that is full of curlicues and her words are scratched out letters reminiscent of being written by a quill. The words in this book are powerful icons in their own right.
Each and every page of this book requires the reader/s to lead their reading. Do they turn the book upside down – do they read from bottom to top – do they read from the middle to the outside? Child’s methods of construction challenges reading conventions and do so with a glorious, almost insouciant, exuberance.
This is a book that defines reading for me. It defines what can be done in the medium of “book” and what can be achieved by the reader. It’s an utter classic that rewards me each and every time I return to it.